An American in Sweden

Dr. Steven Burg lived by a new motto during the fall 2013 semester—lagom, which is Swedish for “everything in moderation.” More than a phrase, lagom is a way of life in Sweden, where Burg spent the semester teaching and researching as part of his Fulbright grant. 

Burg, professor of history and chair of the department, got his first taste of life in Sweden as a college student when he spent a semester abroad at Stockholm University in 1989. Knowing that he had a sabbatical planned, he applied for a Fulbright Award to teach and research in the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Historical Studies. The Department of Historical Studies is comprised of both historians and archaeologists, providing a unique faculty for its programs in culture heritage studies.

“It was a pretty intense process and involved lots of planning,” Burg said of the Fulbright. “It’s interesting to see both history and higher education through different eyes.”

The prestigious Fulbright Award encourages cultural and educational exchange among recipients. American scholars teach and research in their areas of expertise, but they also act as cultural ambassadors. They share what life is like in the United States with their hosts and return home with a greater international perspective. 

“It’s going to have a really dramatic impact on my teaching, especially my courses on public history and historic preservation,” Burg said.  

Burg has found it useful to study Sweden’s approach to preserving its past as a way to reflect on preservation policies in the United States. Sweden’s historic preservation laws are much more restrictive, requiring all construction projects to prove that they will not endanger historic resources. Burg was interested in seeing the benefits of that approach, but also the problems caused by implementing and enforcing tougher preservation laws.   

It also is interesting for Burg to consider the place of United States history in Swedish universities. “I was really surprised to discover that Gothenburg University has courses on world history, but it does not offer any specific courses on United States history.” Occasionally, when Swedes discovered he specializes in American history, they would joke, “How can you study United States history—your country is too young to have any history.” 

But Burg has shared our country’s history with his Swedish hosts and showed them that Americans—just like the Swedes—are very interested in preserving their nation’s historic resources.

Sweden also is focused on public history and has a wealth of innovative museums. The Swedes are always considering how to teach and approach history in new and different ways, Burg said. One fascinating exhibit at Gothenburg’s World Cultures museum focused on introducing the public to what museums do and the service they provide. The exhibit turned visitors into museum curators and allowed guests to think about how they would design their own displays using the museum’s collections. 

“It is so valuable to me to see how Swedish museum professionals are experimenting with different approaches and techniques. I want to share these ideas with my students so they can think in new and creative ways about how we might share history with the public.”

Even though Burg was nearly 4,000 miles away from home, he still had Ship students on his mind. He blogged about his overseas adventures and Skyped with two different classes while in Sweden. 

“Sweden is a very welcoming place for Americans,” he said. “But there were a lot of little customs to learn, like taking off your shoes when you enter a Swedish home. At work, the Swedes are very focused, but they also believe in taking breaks for lunch and making time to socialize with their co-workers. They are not at all interested in American work-a-holism. They think it’s crazy that we eat lunch at our desks.”

Many workplaces make time for a fika or brief coffee break, each day, he said. Businesses close between 4:00 and 5:00PM and people usually don’t check e-mails after hours.

The experience abroad made a major impact on his teaching for the spring semester. Sweden is very serious about preparing its students to function in a global society, and the students Burg taught often spoke multiple languages. “They are very international. In working with my Shippensburg students, I want to instill in them the importance of being ready to function in the larger world and to see themselves as part of a global community.” 

He also plans to share his studies on emigration, religion, historical preservation, and urban development, which have impacted his own research.

Although the Fulbright process was long and intense, Burg couldn’t be happier with the results. “Sweden was everything I hoped for. I’m excited to get back to Shippensburg and to share this amazing experience with my students.”